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Promoting Smart, Safe Decarceration Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: Challenges, Issues, and Solutions

This article is from Volume 6, Issue 1 of Forensic Scholars Today, a quarterly publication featuring topics from the world of forensic mental health.

Alexis Q. Dawkins and Dr. Joshua Kirven

Winthrop University

Presenting Issue:

People often question the demeanor, or aptitude of incarcerated persons, specifically those from the most criminalized groups. Many of the individuals who are Black and Latinx are issued a distinct profile that promotes fear, safety, and suspicion for the general public. As a result, one is left questioning the deportment of these groups with the following inquiries: (1) Are Black and Latinx people inherently malcontent? (2) Are they naturally drawn to the criminal element? The simple answer is no. When expanded upon, we find that the inconsistent, or “corrupted” ways of the social and justice system are to blame for the mass incarceration of people of color. The way popular media platforms narrate it and society orchestrates it, one would assume that people of color are born and raised with malfeasance in their DNA, as criminality is forever intertwined with their identity and their communities. The often corrupted, or disrupted legal, social, and environmental system holds the most weight in the mass incarceration of people of color. This overly abundant presence of minority groups within the prison system has resulted in the social, environmental, familial, and economic disruption, if not devastation, of the marginalized communities. With these strategically neglected communities in plain sight, one would wonder what physical or mental effect these aspects would have on newly returning members, especially as they are returning to the same environment that promoted their departure. This is particularly pertinent amid the current COVID-19 pandemic. Key questions should be raised concerning not only the primary risk factors and health disparities but also the new pandemic related turmoil and sickness these minority communities are most susceptible to.

A New Dimension to the Struggle:

Currently, the promotion of smart decarceration is faced by challenges of health issues, un-employability, limited education, limited-or-lost democratic power, and financial desperation, as these individuals and communities are plagued by these issues (Staples, 2007; “The end of prisons,” 2013). As a result, the individuals returning from prison are entering unhealthy environments that affect their ability to escape recidivistic behavior, thus, impacting the ability to promote smart or healthy decarceration. Therefore, these newly released persons are forced into a relentless cycle, as they return to a disrupted, or “broken” system, without the means or resources to grow and develop past their original person. Although this is not true for every person that has experienced imprisonment, this is still a challenge that weakens their ability to foster authentic or expansive change. They do not have the opportunities to “better” themselves as they are limited by the social, environmental, and legal restraints, as aforementioned. Perceptually as well, these men and women are held back and down by their labels. With the perception of being a criminal or associated with crime and past indiscretions, they are often unable to elevate past the legal, social, and economic perceptions and realities placed on them. These perceptions bring a loss of democratic power, heightened suspicion, lost trust, familial/peer disruption, and limited employability. These aspects are subject to be intensified by the effects of COVID-19 as these persons are being released back into their home, distressed, high-risk community while they are already in a disadvantaged state.

In addition, there are the dynamics of the familial and peer aspects that exist as they are returning to family and peer units that may have been disrupted as a result of, or during their imprisonment. In a way, I can attest to these factors as I have had family members—predominantly uncles—who have had their networks disrupted due to cyclical rotations within the prison system. As a result, their familial dynamics and connectivity were disrupted as they missed births, holidays, graduations, birthdays, and funerals, which unfortunately orchestrate feelings of resentment within their family units. In addition, these family members became overly familiar to law enforcement, to the extent as they are known on a first-name basis. Therefore, they must continuously be on their P’s and Q’s, or live with the daily stress of not another making a mistake. Unfortunately, many fell back into the traps of imprisonment due to economic or financial strains. Seeing this repeatedly, I can attest, causes an emotional and mental toll on family growth and functioning. These repeat offenses have socially, financially, and environmentally affected them to completely and routinely evaluate their self and actions to ensure that they do not fall back into a familiar, readily accessible criminal trap. This is especially the case now during these COVID-19 times. Through conversations and observations with these family members and friends, I have become aware of how easy it is to fall into old habits, particularly when stressors arise such as finding gainful employment, sustaining financial security, having accessible support services and treatment, receiving community acceptance or struggles with family/child reunification.

Relevant Factors:

The historical and current elements or systems of racial, social, environmental, and economic disparities have facilitated a disruption within these communities. Several political statements have strengthened these disparities. From a racial standpoint, the institution of slavery in the 1600s, Jim Crow’s segregation laws (1877—1950s), and the rise of mass incarceration policies in the 1980s have collectively impacted these communities in a devastating capacity. Institutionally, these political attributes have created a social context that promotes the criminalization of minorities, specifically African Americans. As well, these biased politics have devastated the social, economic, and environmental standing of these at-risk populations (“The end of prisons,” 2013). All these factors have influenced or contributed to the promotion of mass incarceration, which is a systematic method for imprisoning large portions of the population, usually minorities (i.e., African Americans and Latinx) and those with low socioeconomic status (SES). As a result of mass incarceration, there has been a rather significant impact, or damage done to these communities, as the loss of family members, usually fathers, or paternal figures have impacted the financial and social standing as well as the familial structure within these communities (“The end of prisons,” 2013). The criminalization of African American and Latinx people has spread throughout their communities, promoting impoverishment, the rise in a criminal element, violence, and a loss in familial stability (“The end of prisons,” 2013).

These factors are especially pertinent to our current COVID-19 impacted society, as these minority communities are the group most affected, or vulnerable to the pandemic. Black and Latinx communities lack the resources to fight off or avoid this illness as they often live in densely populated areas affected by poverty. These areas do not have access to quality healthcare options causing the rate of COVID-19 affected persons in these communities to be more rampant and severe. With the added dimension of newly returning citizens to these communities, these individuals become more at-risk for not only contracting or spreading the virus but also falling into the traps of old habits, especially as they are economically, mentally, and socially at a disadvantage.

Implications and Recommendations:

As a result of this socially inherent risk for Black and Latinx incarceration, there is a need for a plan for dealing with the challenges of mass imprisonment. Typically, this plan comes in the form of promoting smart decarceration, which consists of the ability to increase the likelihood for newly returning citizens released from prison to prosper, or at least adapt to life outside of prison, while decreasing the likelihood for re-entry into the prison system (Byrne, 2014; Mobley, 2011; Staples, 2007; Webster, Sprott, & Doob, 2019). The target benchmark of decarceration should be to deplete, or reduce the overpopulated prison systems and restore the stability of those individuals, families, and communities affected by the overzealous systems of imprisonment, all while monitoring the impact to the affected groups’ civil rights (Byrne, 2014; Mauer, 2007; Staples, 2007; “The end of prisons,” 2013). It has been proposed that we should reinvest in the individuals, families, and communities through the use of funds and resources to deplete the effects of imprisonment as well as adopt treatment to relax the prison mindset and rebuild structure (Bright, Farrell, Winters, Betstinger, & Lee, 2018; Byrne, 2014). This is especially the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. Men and women are not only being released into environments and social networks that promoted their incarceration, but they are also being released into a society in disarray and fear impacted by this pandemic.

A Targeted Solution of Impact

In an effort to not only attend to the original impact of imprisonment and release, but also address the current pandemic, it is proposed that we initiate an intervention program that will respond to the mental, social, familial, environmental, and economic factors of returning Black and Latinx citizens. Within this framework, a 30-day intervention program is adopted to allow these returning citizens to rehabilitate and transition, both mentally and physically, with particular focus on their health and safety (i.e., quarantine, available testing, and housing for COVID-19). Also, psychoeducation awareness will be infused, highlighting the emotional, social, familial, and environmental disparities that plague the community they return to. This transitioning intervention component of the program will include the Family Centered Treatment (FCT) therapeutic modality, which has been slated to reduce recidivism rates in offenders (Bright et al., 2018). This adoption of this program in the heart of the community will help to rehabilitate participants and rebuild healthy, supportive family and peer support systems in a gradual process.

The scope of this community-based program will therapeutically focus on maladaptive thinking and behavior patterns and replacing them with more prosocial mental processing and functioning. The program will work in conjunction with the criminal justice system with a curriculum of providing mental and emotional stability training, behavioral modification, the identification of environmental and social risks (i.e., toxic peer and family associations), and other methods that will reduce the likelihood of recidivism. With social distancing being a new reality in our daily lives to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it is highly encouraged that the initial treatment programming is facilitated virtually, via computer or cell phone. These virtual meetings can be self-paced and directed to maximize enthusiasm and participation towards completion. This program needs to be coordinated and facilitated by a clinical social worker or professional who exercises cultural humility and sensitivity in their practice in understanding and meeting the challenging, unique elements of imprisonment, especially that of Black and Latinx persons.

Alexis Q. Dawkins is a second year MSW graduate student at Winthrop University. She received a bachelor’s in psychology with a minor in child advocacy studies from the University of South Carolina Upstate. She is also a member of Psi Chi, a psychology honors society. Dawkins was selected to present two posters at the 2020 National Association of Social Workers SC-Symposium. Her titles were: Affirming Affirmative Action: Equal Employment Opportunity, and Heal the Home, Help the Man: Promoting Smart Decarceration. Dawkins is an advocate for social and racial justice and community empowerment. She is a proponent of evidence-based practice that is grounded in cultural humility and sensitivity in working with disenfranchised populations. She plans to carry out this passion as a professional (MSW) social worker. She is advised and mentored by Dr. Joshua Kirven.

Dr. Joshua Kirven is an associate professor in the Department of Social Work at Winthrop University and a part-time instructor at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina. He is also a forensic mental health columnist with the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies. Kirven is a research-practitioner with more than 20 years of experience as an educator-practitioner. His research areas are fatherhood engagement and impact, neighborhood adversity and safety, prosocial youth development, and the influence of sports culture on behavioral health and academic achievement. He has an array of practice experience with solution-oriented, evidence-based interventions, and macro programming across communities and public-private sectors in the area of socially conscious capitalism. He is a Fulbright Scholar and graduate of Hampton University, University of South Carolina, and Ohio State University, respectively.


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